Maybe it was the blizzard. Or the fact that 17-year-old Frankie Jones had never gone backpacking.
Whatever the reason, the intense, 145-mile backpacking course in the rugged Cascade Range in northern Washington this summer changed Jones forever.
Jones, 17, a senior at The Met High School in Sacramento, and recent graduate Ruby Avila, 18, each spent a month in remote wilderness areas through the National Outdoor Leadership School’s scholarship program, the Gateway Partnership.
The scholarship enables urban youths who have had little exposure to wildlands to participate in NOLS’ leadership and wilderness skills training courses.
Under guidance from instructors, the teens carried 70-pound backpacks as they hiked over rough terrain. They learned how to be self-sufficient in the wilderness, cook, set up and break camp in the worst of conditions, ford rivers and cross lakes.
Avila kayaked for nearly two weeks in Alaska’s Prince William Sound, where tidewater glaciers flow into the sea, and she backpacked through mountainous terrain. Jones scaled mountain peaks across high tundra.
By the time Jones returned to Sacramento, she was tantalized by the prospect of a career in the medical field. The taste of first-aid training while in the wild, she said, left her with a desire to learn more about emergency response in rugged terrain and how to help other young people experience the wilderness. Her new plan: Attend California State University, Sacramento, enter the ROTC program, eventually enlist in the Air Force and be trained in medicine or a related field.
“I just came back with a sense of well-being and connectedness with my role as an individual in the world and the universe,” she said. “I want to put in more effort to help make a difference in the world, to help take care of our planet.”
NOLS typically commands thousands of dollars per student for wilderness training. But the school’s Gateway Partnership scholarships enable minority and low-income students to experience public lands free of tuition.
The National Park Service, in a survey released two years ago, found that non-Latino whites tended to be overrepresented among visitors. African Americans and Latino Americans visited parks at the lowest rates relative to their populations.
David Berg, a physical science teacher and adviser at The Met as well as a longtime NOLS instructor, was the link between the wilderness school and the high school. Berg said he recognized that some Met students would be excellent candidates for the scholarships.
The Gateway Partnership works with organizations and institutions such as The Met to award about a third of the $1.5 million in NOLS grants each year.
“What works is when there is a school that knows the kids well and knows their level of interest,” Berg said. “Our (Met High) school model happens to fit really well with this program.” The Met emphasizes experiences outside the classroom such as internships and mentor programs.
Though tuition was waived, Jones and Avila paid for equipment, clothing and travel from Sacramento. Costs were financed through jobs and fundraising.
Jones said once she decided she belonged in the medical field, she gave up plans to intern for a University of California, Davis, professor researching youth and literacy in democracy. Instead, she said, she would learn “about things I’ve never even thought about.”
Her course, which ended in July, involved two instructors and nine other students, ages 16 to 19, from around the country. The group hiked in the Okanogan National Forest in the northern Cascades , across the Pasayten Wilderness area through dense forest, over extensive burn areas and alpine ridgelines.
For the first two weeks, Jones said, the group encountered mainly rain, wind, snow and fog. Then came the blizzard.
“We were all so cold,” she said. “We took down our tent. We had to make breakfast under a tarp.”
Then they started the day’s hike – the better to stave off the cold.
“I didn’t expect it would be so physically demanding, so hard-core,” Jones said. “I had my teammates to rely on. And I learned how to take care of myself.”
Homesickness dogged her early days. Then it lifted, she said, and in its place was a growing sense of independence and self-reliance.
“I felt, if I could summit three peaks (Windy, Slate and Three Fools), I could do anything,” Jones said. “I went on this trip, and my eyes were opened. Everything changed.”
Ruby Avila, who starts her freshman year Thursday at UC Santa Cruz, said she started the trip with a love of the outdoors, thanks to her father’s enthusiasm for outdoor activities.
She spent 13 days in July hiking in the Eastern Chugach Mountains in Alaska’s Tonsina area, then paddled on Prince William Sound from Valdez to Whittier with the group of 12 students and three instructors.
“Hiking was physically challenging for me,” Avila said. “We had really long hikes some days. Going up in altitude was really draining. I was frustrated.”
The second week, however, she was in good shape and easily managed the daily hikes of up to eight hours. “I was on it,” she said.
She learned, she said, “how to read the terrain” with the aid of a topographic map and a compass, and to navigate around boulders across flatlands and on steep loose terrain.
At Prince William Sound, the group stayed in an RV park while being coached on climbing into their kayaks after a capsize “in the freezing cold water,” with or without help from a partner, Avila said.
The days of sea kayaking, she said, were loaded with sightings of sea otters, sea lions, salmon and bald eagles.
Avila said she, too, felt changed by the experience.
“It has really encouraged me to follow my interest in nature,” she said. “I want to take the instructor’s course with NOLS so I can also be an instructor – and have my own little class out in Alaska one day.”
Call The Bee’s Loretta Kalb, (916) 321-1073. Read her Report Card blog at http://blogs.sacbee.com/report-card